Joseph A. Keller
"Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace" (James 3:13-18).
Are you wise? James 3:13 issues a challenge: "Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom." James 2:18 says, "Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works." In effect, then, James 3:13 says, "Show me your wisdom apart from gentleness, and I will show you my wisdom by my gentleness." The fruit of true wisdom will distinguish it from counterfeit wisdom.
What is wisdom? In the ancient world, the Greeks viewed wisdom as theoretical knowledge, facts and ideas to be discussed and debated in order to increase one's understanding. It stayed in their heads; it did not affect their behavior. This is how the word wisdom is often used today, too, even by Christians.
In the Bible, however, wisdom is practical; it determines how you will live your life. The book of Proverbs says that a wise person is one who is skilled in righteous living. He is disciplined in living a righteous life; he is able to make decisions that keep him from getting trapped in sin.
It's important to be wise. Proverbs warns of the terrible consequences of being without wisdom, that is, without skill in righteous living. Proverbs 1 speaks of the fool who runs with wicked friends and gets trapped in theft and murder. Proverbs 5-7 speaks of the foolish young man who goes after an appealing woman and gets trapped in sexual sin.
Tragically, many Christians today, young and old, demonstrate that they are terribly lacking in true wisdom. I've seen adult Christians who did not have the wisdom needed to keep their marriage together, or to maintain their friendships with others, or to keep their jobs. I've seen young Christian women who believed the lies of young men and ended up married to unbelievers or as single mothers. We need wisdom. Wisdom is what will shape your life. Wisdom is what will make you a blessing to yourself and to those around you. But there's a big difference between true wisdom and counterfeit wisdom.
God warns us against counterfeit wisdom. James 3:13-14 says: "Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth." If the proof is in the pudding, verse 13 shows us the proof of true wisdom; verse 14 shows us the marks of counterfeit wisdom.
Many to whom James wrote thought they were wise. They were sure they had understanding. They even felt qualified to teach others. But the proof of true wisdom is meekness (gentleness or humility). "Meekness of wisdom" means "meekness that springs from wisdom." The New International Version translates it this way: "Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom." When you have a deep sense of your own sinfulness and the mercy of God in saving you, then you find it easier to treat other people-even those who wrong you-with gentleness. You imitate Jesus Christ. 1 Peter 2:23 reminds us that "when he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly."
Every claim to be wise and competent to teach others is exposed as false when it is devoid of the humility before God that causes you to handle other people with gentleness. Verse 14 reveals the opposite of gentleness. If you do your works for God with "bitter jealousy" (envying others for what they have that you do not) and "selfish ambition" (an attitude that seeks to promote what you desire at the expense of others), then you are guilty of serious sin. This is the sin of party rivalry-working to promote yourself and your party and to put others down. It's a subtle and deceitful sin: "The person sees himself as jealous for the truth, but God and others see the bitterness, rigidity, and personal pride which are far from the truth" (Peter Davids, James, p. 151). If that describes you, then you had better not boast. Envy and selfish ambition are nothing to boast about. Do not boast that you are wise, that you have understanding, that you are able to teach. The truth is that you are not really wise; you are not in a position to teach. Your attitude of self-promotion evidences worldly wisdom.
"This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic" (vs. 15). Worldly wisdom is earthly. It is unspiritual; the Holy Spirit is not the source of this wisdom. It is demonic; it comes from Satan himself. Just as James 3:6 identifies hell as the source of the moral fires that the tongue spreads like a flamethrower, so verse 15 tells us that this counterfeit wisdom that men claim does not come from heaven; it comes from hell.
Worldly wisdom is very destructive. "For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice" (vs. 16). "God is not a God of confusion but of peace" (1 Cor. 14:33). But worldly wisdom produces confusion and disorder. It breaks up peace and unity, both within families and within the body of Christ.
"God is light, and in him is no darkness at all" (1 John 1:5). If you claim to have wisdom, but your wisdom is the wisdom of this world, the results will be moral darkness. Pride, division, slander, and coveting will flow out from it.
But what of true wisdom? Again, verse 13 indicates the marks of true wisdom. A spirit of meekness and humility before God and of gentleness toward others shows that a person possesses true wisdom.
Where does true wisdom come from? Verse 17 calls it "the wisdom from above." True wisdom comes down from above. God is the source of true wisdom.
How does God communicate this true wisdom to you? Proverbs 9:10 says that true wisdom starts with the fear of God. Wisdom begins with God's giving you, on the one hand, an understanding of his greatness and holiness and, on the other hand, an understanding of your own sinfulness and helplessness. You receive God's wisdom when you entrust yourself to Christ for salvation and when Jesus Christ, "in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Col. 2:3), comes to dwell within you. You grow in wisdom as you immerse yourself in God's Word, and as you obey James 1:5 and pray to God for wisdom.
James 3:17 identifies the fruit of heavenly wisdom: "But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere." These consequences of wisdom are very closely related; they have to do with meekness in dealing with other people.
The only one that isn't clearly talking about your relationship to people is the first one, "pure." But even this has a lot to do with your relationships with people; it may even sum up all the other fruits. God wants the words you speak to be pure, not filthy or hateful. He wants your actions to be pure, not done with hidden motives of bitter jealously and selfish ambition.
When you are pure, you will be "peaceable." All who have God's wisdom are peacemakers. You do not make peace by always giving in. You make peace by seeking God. For God's sake, you seek to understand the other person's viewpoint. For God's sake, you seek to repent of any sins on your side. For God's sake, you identify valid concerns on both sides. For God's sake, you look for God's solutions.
True wisdom makes you "gentle." That is, you are kind and mild, not harsh, in dealing with people. You are "open to reason." You are willing to give a fair hearing to all sides of the story; you will not close your mind to listening. You are "full of mercy," willing to forgive and forget wrongs which have been committed against you. Why? Because you remember that you too are a sinner; you know that God forgave you and, by his grace, you forgive others. "Good fruits" is a broad phrase, but in this context it means that you do loving deeds for others. "Impartial" means that you act without showing favor to some while ignoring others or mistreating them. "Sincere" means that you act openly and honestly, without hypocrisy or hidden motives.
During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln issued a command to transfer certain regiments. Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War, refused to carry out the order, saying that Lincoln was a fool. When Lincoln was told of this, he replied, "If Stanton said I'm a fool, then I must be, for he is nearly always right. I'll see for myself." With that he went to see Secretary Stanton and talked over the effects of the order. After listening to the secretary's arguments, he withdrew his order. Such a gentle, humble spirit which is open to reason goes a long way toward preventing and resolving conflicts (see Hughes, James, p. 159).
John Calvin commented: "James says that those who are wise according to God's will are so kind, meek, and merciful, as yet not to cover vices nor favor them; but on the contrary in such a way as to strive to correct them, and yet in a peaceable manner, that is, in moderation, so that the union is preserved. And thus he testifies that what he had hitherto said tends in no degree to do away with calm reproofs; but that those who wish to be physicians to heal vices ought not to be executioners" (Commentaries, vol. 22, p. 328).
Have you received peace from God through the Mediator, Jesus Christ? Colossians 3:15 commands, "Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful" (niv). Are you at peace with God? Let God's peace in Christ control your mind and actions. As a result, you will become a peacemaker.
"And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace" (Jas. 3:18). God says that when you possess true wisdom, you will become a peace-farmer. You will go out and scatter seeds of peace all over the place. And through your wisdom, God will produce a harvest of righteousness. In other words, God uses peacemakers to build up the church of Jesus Christ. Thus, the church grows in love, unity, righteousness, and Christlikeness.
Are you wise? Don't insist loudly that you are. Show your wisdom by your good conduct in the meekness of wisdom.
The author is the pastor of Christ Covenant OPC in Dallas, Tex. Unless otherwise indicated, he quotes the ESV. Reprinted from New Horizons, January 2004.